The Championships, Australia’s version of the Breeders’ Cup, begin tonight at Royal Randwick in Sydney with one of the most anticipated rematches in Australian racing.

Nature Strip-The Championships 2021
One of the best sprinters in the world, Nature Strip is the reigning Horse of the Year and Sprinter of the Year in Australia. He attempts defense of his TJ Smith Stakes title at The Championships at Royal Randwick in Sydney. (Image: Steve Hart)

That’s Nature Strip vs. Eduardo in the Group 1 TJ Smith Stakes, the eighth race on Friday night’s card. The TJ Smith Stakes is one of four Group 1 races on the opening night of the two-night The Championships meet.

As a refresher, The Championships consist of two days and 12 races. But unlike the Breeders’ Cup, The Championships run the first and second Saturdays in April. Like the US Breeders’ Cup, the races determine champions over different age groups and distances. And like the Breeders’ Cup, you’re seeing a high level of racing – eight of the 12 races are Group (Grade) 1s.

Like the Breeders’ Cup, held in the fall as the US racing season winds down, The Championships take place during Sydney’s Autumn Racing Carnival. They offer A$21 million in purses over the 12 races.

Eduardo vs. Nature Strip — Round 2

The most anticipated of those being the aforementioned $2.5 million TJ Smith Stakes, which sends its field six furlongs in an all-out cavalry charge. And 5/2 favorite Nature Strip and Eduardo (7/2) figure to lead said charge. Both earned spots on the most recent Longines World’s Best Racehorse Ratings, earning identical 121 ratings. Nature Strip finished last year at 124, putting him in a tie for 10th.

Five weeks ago, Eduardo nipped Nature Strip by a head in a Group 2 race at Randwick. The 7-year-old gelding came off that into an easy 3 ½-length win in a Group 1 on March 27.

Trained by older-horse maestro Joe Price, Eduardo is 7-3-3 in 19 starts, with more than $1.7 million in career earnings. He’s won three of his last four races.

Nature Strip seeks revenge, defense

Nature Strip, meanwhile, won this event last year. The current Australian Horse of the Year and Sprinter of the Year, Nature Strip’s manic-depressive form continued after he captured last year’s TJ Smith. Since then, he’s finished second, fourth, seventh, second, first, second. His win came by a half-length in a February race at Flemington.

The $1 million Sires Produce is the middle leg of Sydney’s Triple Crown, following the Golden Slipper and preceding the Champagne Stakes. This version features Golden Slipper-runner up Anamoe as your 6/5 favorite. It also features a recent anti-favorite bias. Only three favorites since 2006 rewarded chalk.

The seven-furlong distance does what that distance always does in Group 1 races: bring in an eclectic field of stretching-out sprinters and cutting-back milers. Keep an eye on second favorite Four Moves Ahead (9/2), since half the winners in the last decade were fillies.

Favorites are anything but in this Derby

That brings us to the 1 ½-mile Australian Derby, one of the country’s most storied races. The $2 million Derby dates to 1861 – 14 years before the Kentucky Derby. Like the Sires Produce, favorites disappoint. Only three times from 1991-2020 has a favorite produced. But unlike the Sires Produce, fillies disappoint as well. Only one – Shamrocker in 2011 — found the winner’s circle in the last 31 years.

Trying to break that streak is 5/2 favorite Montefilia. She’s already beaten the boys in a Group 1 at Randwick earlier this year. She finished third in one of the two major preps for this race: the Rosehill Guineas. Top jockey James McDonald, who also rides Nature Strip and Anamoe, takes Guineas runner up Sky Lab (4/1).

The last four Derby winners — including last year’s winner, Quick Thinker — came out of the Tulloch Stakes, the other major prep. But as the odds show, its three board-hitters this year: Yaletown (18/1), Prompt Prodigy (51/1) and Young Werther (12/1) are less regarded than the Guineas’ runners.

The Championships headline race

The marquee race on The Championships Day 1 card is the $3 million Doncaster Handicap. That’s where you’ll find the Rosehills Guineas winner – Mo’unga. Because of his horrible post draw – gate 19 in the 20-horse field – Mo’unga’s odds are 7/1.

But the great equalizer in this mile race that dates to 1866 is the handicap format, which gives the 3-year-old a 14-pound break over 7/2 favorite Mugatoo.

Along with Mugatoo, keep an eye on Avilius (12/1), who hasn’t won since September 2019. But the English horse hits the board 56% of the time.